New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz catches a ball during NFL football practice, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012, in East Rutherford, N.J. The Giants travel to San Francisco to play the 49ers in the NFC championship game. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
No complaining about these championship matchups: prolific offense vs. stingy defense, or old foes renewing a storied rivalry.
Whichever suits your preference, the NFL has it this weekend.
When the New England Patriots host the Baltimore Ravens today for the AFC title, four players who have come to represent the highest levels of achievement will be on each side of the ball. Tom Brady, seeking a fifth start in a Super Bowl, and Wes Welker on New England's offense, Ray Lewis and Ed Reed on Baltimore's defense.
"They've got a lot of guys over there that are very explosive," said Reed, the Ravens' star safety. "Obviously, they score a lot of points, and we've all seen that. It's going to be an all-day affair for our defense."
The other championship affair today is at Candlestick Park, where the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers have played some memorable games, regular season and postseason. Despite the geographic separation, these franchises have quite a history with each other.
"You know there are a lot of memories," former Giants quarterback Phil Simms said of the rivalry. "They went from maybe the greatest to the worst in lots of ways. The games were awesome."
It could shape up as an awesome weekend. Certainly an intriguing one.
New England (14-3) hasn't won the AFC crown since 2007, when it was unbeaten until the Giants pulled off a shocker in the Super Bowl. The Patriots' last NFL title came in January 2005.
To get their fourth league championship under coach Bill Belichick and with Brady at quarterback, they'll need to have their offense in high gear, which it has been nearly all season. The Patriots scored at least 27 points in all but three games and averaged 32.8, including last week's 45-10 rout of Denver, their ninth straight victory.
But New England didn't beat an opponent that finished with a winning record, and lost to its two most difficult foes, Pittsburgh and the Giants.
Baltimore (13-4) most assuredly presents a difficult challenge, with a defense that yielded 266 points, more than only two teams.
"I think we have a lot of confidence, we are a confident type team, have a lot of good players and they feed off each other," All-Pro receiver Welker said. "We feel someone will step up and make a play ... and it makes it tough on defenses.
"I understand we are playing a great football team this week and have to be on top of everything. No mental errors, no bad mistakes, knowing your job and taking care of your business."
Brady usually does that, although before the romp past Denver, he and the Patriots had lost three straight postseason games. He is 4-0 in regular-season meetings with the Ravens, but lost their only playoff matchup.
If he isn't at his best, it will be because of Lewis, Reed and that staunch Baltimore D. The Ravens are as physical as anyone, and one thing that historically has slowed Brady has been when a defense gets in his face, disrupts his rhythm -- and hits him. Many times.
"It's more important that we stop their whole offense," said Reed, whom Belichick called the greatest safety he has faced during his coaching career. "We can't focus on one particular player, because Brady doesn't. Brady throws it to everybody. I've been saying that all week. He'll throw it to an offensive lineman. We're looking at everybody that's eligible that's going out on a route and not going out on a route. We're paying attention to everybody. Everybody has a responsibility. They have 11 guys on the field. We have 11 guys on the field. Everybody has to do their responsibility."
The 11 guys on each side of the ball at Candlestick Park for the NFC championship game will carry on a tradition of notable meetings that dates back to when the 49ers (14-3) and Giants (11-7) were dominating the conference in the 1980s. Their only faceoff in the title game was in January 1991, when New York kicked five field goals for a 15-13 victory, preventing San Francisco from going after a third straight Super Bowl trophy.
While it's fun to conjure up memories of Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, Lawrence Taylor and Matt Bahr, this year's participants are more concerned with adding to a winning legacy. This is the 49ers' first playoff appearance since the 2002 season, when they won a wild 39-38 wild-card game against the Giants. New York, of course, won it all four years ago.
"Winning is what it's all about and it definitely makes coming to work a lot better than hearing, Who's going to be your new head coach or defensive coordinator?' All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith said. "I'll take this over the other for sure."
No worries on the coaching front after Jim Harbaugh made his first year in charge one of the most successful for any rookie coach. Harbaugh doesn't have much of a feel for Giants-49ers, though; he didn't play for either team.
Giants coach Tom Coughlin, who was on the 1990 championship staff, knows all about it.
"I have thought about that and we will talk about some of the things that occurred there," Coughlin said, "but only from the standpoint of the history and the tradition and what a great event that was at that particular time. That was a long time ago and I think some of our players, because they are historians, will know a little about that game and the great players that played in that game."
More appropriate, perhaps, is the 27-20 win by the 49ers in November, a game decided only when Smith blocked Eli Manning's last-minute pass deep in San Francisco territory. It was the latest installment of a grand rivalry.